John Best

John Best

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This article about the Best Steam Engine and Boiler Works, which won world renown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the late 1800s, is prompted as much by a desire for information as it is to record some of the story.

So far as I know, there is no connection between the John Best who founded the Pennsylvania firm and the Daniel Best Family which built steam traction engines a little later in California.

If any reader can supply additional light, it will be appreciated. Piecing together the stories of early manufacturers is not easy, although some researchers have had considerable success.

My interest in John Best was stirred because he lived in Lancaster, which is our magazine's home town. Robert Lefever, a Rough & Tumble member, loaned me a Lancaster County Fair program of 1887 which had Best and other steam ads in it, and I decided I would try to learn more.

Then Jim said that a biography of John Best had appeared in the Biographical Annals of Lancaster County, published in 1903, and that sealed it. So here is a summary of what I learned about the Best of Lancaster with the hope that if any of this make's engines survive, we be told so that we can obtain photographs.

John Best's story starts on a farm, and it is a very touching tale that harks of a bygone day. He was born in Souders burg, Lancaster County, in 1822, a son of John Best, Sr., a Scotsman, who had emigrated from Ireland about 1808. The senior Best fought in the War of 1812, settled in Soudersburg and worked on farms in the neighborhood.

The home was broken up after the family moved to Lancaster and the mother died in 1829. Young John, then seven, was troubled when he heard discussions on the uncertainties facing his future.

Though only a small boy, he packed up the few belongings he had, and headed off on foot from home. He thought he had traveled a long way when he stopped at a farm and asked for work. The kindly farm family gave him a night's lodging.

His hosts thought he was a runaway, and next day took him back home. But when it turned out that his future was indeed clouded by doubts, the farmer took him back with him and there the boy stayed for nine years. It was mostly a time of work, however, and no school, for in those days there was no compulsory education.

Before he was seventeen, Best left the farm, went to Lancaster and became an apprentice to a blacksmith, learning the trade in three years. He set up a shop of his own in the country, but failed for his first and only time.

He sought work in vain in Philadelphia, but found another apprenticeship in boiler making in a shipyard in Wilmington, Delaware. He learned shipbuilding also, and soon became a department foreman. Because of an accident in which he was nearly killed, he was about to quit this dangerous work, but a raise in pay induced him to stay.

He helped build 27 vessels, then worked as a boiler maker in many other large cities. In Philadelphia again, now married with a family, he became superintendent for fitting up the government ship, 'Mississippi' for Commodore Perry's famous visit to Japan. His work was so satisfactory that he received a $100 bonus.

In 1859 he returned to Lancaster, renting an old stable as a shop near the Pennsylvania Railroad station at a rental of five cents a day. He became a partner of Jacob Auxer, but when Best insisted on taking a $7,500 contract for cotton mill boiler work, Auxer dropped out. Best finished the project successfully.

Best moved again to an abandoned church building, and found plenty of demand for his abilities. When he got a contract for boilers 70' long, he had to enlarge, so he bought land and erected a factory at Plum and Fulton Streets, Lancaster. Here he made products which became known throughout the world.

His 1887 ad, shown with this article, depicts one of his portable engines. It lists his firm as manufacturing horizontal mining and boiler-feed pumps, Eureka bark mills, corn and cob mills, mining and milling machinery, triple-geared horse powers, pressure blowers for tanners and tan packers, plus many other products.

This man with no early schooling could advertise that he had won a medal and diploma at the 1876 Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia and a medal and five diplomas at the World's Industrial and Cotton Exposition at New Orleans in 1884-85.

His 4 HP portable engine, with cylinder 5' x 8', sold on wheels for $450. Prices ranged upwards to $1,250 for 20 HP with cylinder 10' x 16.'

Best was also interested in other industries. He owned the Eureka Bark Mill Company. John Best died in 1901.

A son, James A Best, became general manager of the firm. How long it stayed in business we do not know, but anyone having knowledge about it is asked to write to us at I.M.A.